Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) / Action-Sci Fi

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, language, some sexuality and innuendo
Running time: 157 min.

Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whitely, John Turturro, Patrick Dempsey, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tyrese Gibson, Josh Duhamel, Alan Tudyk, Ken Jeong, Kevin Dunn, Julie White
Voice Work: Peter Cullen, Hugo Weaving, Leonard Nimoy, James Remar
Cameo: Buzz Aldrin, Bill O'Reilly

Director: Michael Bay
Screenplay: Ehren Kruger
Review published July 21, 2011

transformers dark of the moonI am of a mind to think that I should just write one review to cover all of the Michael Bay Transformers series, as the strengths and weaknesses are virtually identical in each respective film.  It is only for the purists that I offer up the following rant.

Director Michael Bay (The Island, Bad Boys 2) has issued a public acknowledgement that the second film in this hi-octane, low brain-activity series, Revenge of the Fallen, was not up to the snuff he desired.  When he did this, I wondered where was the apology for the first film?  Or most of Bay's films prior, for that matter?  If Dark of the Moon is Bay and co. trying their hardest, all hope is lost for the series, and perhaps Bay's career. Still, I suppose Mike has nothing to feel sorry for when audiences flock in droves to endure more of his visual and aural assault on their senses, in 3D IMAX no less, perhaps the cinematic equivalent of feeling shitfaced after stumbling feebly out of the theaters once it's all over.

The plot is barely worth mentioning, as it's more of Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf, Eagle Eye), a hot babe girlfriend named Carly (Huntington Whitely), and a plethora of annoying supporting actors aiding the goodly Autobots in protecting the Earth from the power-hungry, evil Decepticons.  Perhaps in the most original sequence in the film (or the only one), we kick the film off with the rather bold suggestion that the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969 was done with an ulterior motive.  The 20+ seconds of silence had been intentional, in order to investigate an alien spacecraft that had crashed there earlier in the decade.  Within the confines of the technologically advanced craft is a robot called Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek), former Autobot leader, and an elder to Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) as and the current crop of robots we know in the film series.   Flash forward years later and the Decepticons want to ger their metallic hands on that technology, which could result in a time portal that would allow Cybertron to be brought back on Earth, left behind, while the Autobots, working with the military forces of Earth, are going to keep them from it.

To say that Transformers: Dark of the Moon is better than the other two films in the series is like saying that the third time a bully kicked you in the nuts wasn't as painful as the first two.  By now, we've had a chance to inure ourselves to the onslaught of interminable special effects cataclysms that erupt on a regular basis throughout.  However, as much as we might be able to protect ourselves, when Bay plays the film for comedy -- that's when he puts the steel-toed boots on and really drives it into your groin with a wallop, and the only reason the final hour of destructive mayhem seems easier to take is that the actors play heir roles with straight-faced seriousness.  And taking things seriously is the only way this film comes close to generating laughter.

Taken on a purely technical level, Dark of the Moon is impressive.  The special effects are fluid and seamless, while the depictions of a city on the verge of destruction are indeed impressive.  Michael Bay, for all of the complaints I give him in my reviews, knows how to compose an action-movie shot, and shore up his patriotic imagery -- the man was made to shoot propaganda films for the military.  So much effort went into getting the look and sound of this film right, there left no breathing room for creativity in the narrative.  Plus, there are character actors riffing to everything that they see around them, though they can't really see it before the effects are rendered, but there aren't many gifted improvisational comedians to muster up genuine laughs.  And those that are, like Ken Jeong (Role Models, Knocked Up), have to go so far over the top to make something funny happen, they produce irritation above all else.

Meanwhile, Shia LaBeouf is given the task of being both hilariously funny, a romantic heartthrob, and Earth's best chance at survival, and he fails to inspire confidence in any one of them.  You would think after the heroics of the previous two films and saving the Earth twice that he'd undergo at least a small personality change, accepting his rather serious role as Earth's biggest bad-ass, but he's always the same immature, smart-ass, easily annoyed goofball.  If the geeks shall rule the Earth in a Bay flick, he's not even a geek, hipster, or even a passable normal guy -- he's the poor man's John Cusack, but with a high price tag. 

John Turturro's (Cars 2, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3) character was never funny, and scenes involving him are like a black hole, sucking out whatever meager credibility Bay futilely tries to build up. John Malkovich (Secretariat, Burn After Reading), in another bad movie in what's becoming a long string of them, plays Witwicky's jerk of a boss in a completely dispensable role, and still manages to rise above the material.  Frances McDormand (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Friends with Money), as the ultra-feisty National Security director, gets to storm in and out of vehicles and walk fast and determined with her entourage of government agents, but her only significance to the film is she is the only female in the series to not look like she has jumped out of a Victoria's Secret catalog (the charisma-less Rosie Huntington-Whitely gets most of the cheesecake shots, replacing the equally vapid crackpot, Megan Fox). Patrick Dempsey (Made of Honor, Enchanted) plays the smarmy bad guy, Carly's filthy rich but corrupt boss Dylan, with his brand of low-rent, great-for-TV-but-barely-a-blip-in-a-blockbuster sort of way, while one can't help but feel sorry for Leonard Nimoy as he voices Sentinel Prime in a fashion that erodes his greatest moment on screen in Star Trek II, as he blurts out lines like, "The need of the many outweigh the needs of the few."  It's enough to make any sci-fi fan's stomach churn at the Trek-sploitation.

The one question that remains is why, after watching these characters for nearly eight hours of time over the course of three films, do we feel like every character is underwritten and without much dimension?  Are we ever going to progress beyond obvious jokes at the expense of the male characters, or beyond the eye-candy appeal of the females?  The fact that Frances McDormand doesn't have to wear booty shorts or a low-cut shirt should not have to be what passes for Michael Bay's ability to progress as a filmmaker and ability to tell a story beyond just ersatz emotional imagery.  Ehren Kruger's (The Skeleton Key, The Ring 2) script does have a coherent premise and the semblance of a plot, but it's so hard to spot underneath the constant and very forced ad-libby nature of the cheeseball, comical interplay, and even tougher to remember after experiencing action scenes that go on for five, ten, or, in the finale, nearly an hour at a time.  When you lose track of just what everyone's fighting for, what rooting interest do we have, as we sit silently and stare like mindless, drooling idiots as urban landscapes get torn up by robots that are nearly indecipherable from one another?

Transformers: Dark of the Moon isn't so much a film as it is a sensory assault for masochists willing to pay top dollar to for their eyes to explode into a million pieces and their eardrums to reverberate to permanent injury by the onslaught of thunderous crashing, thumping, and clanging without any attempt to push forward a story from scene to scene.  Sure, Bay is able to make it vaguely workable during a few short stretches, but momentum is either halted by the next moment of smug jokery, or he stretches out the action to the point where it all becomes pointless and grim.  How long can people go without using their brain for thought without their bodies experiencing a complete shut down?  At 157 minutes, Bay certainly musters up a herculean effort to find out.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2011 Vince Leo